Jane Finnis is Chief Executive of Culture24, a non-profit organisation that began life as a website and has evolved into a dynamic arts agency responsible for the VanGoYourself Project, Let’s Get Real, Show Me and the popular Museums at Night festival.
Describing herself as an ‘early adopter’ of technology, she is “sceptical about fetishising technology as a solution to whatever problem people think that they’re having. I’m much more interested in things that are good rather than things that are just innovative or clever or hi-tech.”
At university, Finnis studied for what was then just one of a handful of multi-disciplinary degrees combining visual with performing arts. Since then, she has worked in the arts sector for twenty-six years, and has served on numerous advisory boards, working with government agencies and policy makers, leading and developing strategies for good cultural practice.
In 2010, she was chosen by the Cultural Leadership Programme for its ‘Women to Watch’ list.
Before joining Culture24 fourteen years ago, she spent twelve years at the Brighton digital culture agency, Lighthouse, one of a few arts organisations that began exploring the impact of digital technology from the point the Web arrived.
Culture24 began life as The 24 Hour Museum under a Labour government – an initiative by Lloyd Grossman and Chris Smith, the then Culture Secretary. The idea was to work towards the creation of a national virtual museum.
“This was just an idea: the internet wasn’t yet capable, and neither were the institutions capable, of doing anything like a national virtual museum, but it was an ambition.”
Obtaining a sum from the DCMS (Department for Culture, Media & Sport), they set up a simple magazine-style website run directly from the DCMS. When it had been operating for around a year, they realised they were on to something and that the venture needed to be set up independently as a new organisation.
“They did that, and I applied for the job when I was at Lighthouse, and got it. It was just me at the beginning. There are now eleven of us and in the fourteen years we’ve re-invented ourselves at least three times.”
Having started as a single ‘what’s-on’ type website about museums and galleries, the organisation evolved, and in 2007 was rebranded to reflect its cross-sector approach as Culture24.
Finnis and her team concentrated at first on the publishing offering, exploring the logistics of offshoots into tourism-based content, incidentally compiling one of the biggest and most comprehensive databases of arts and heritage venues in the UK, comprising three or four thousand sites, and a huge network of individuals.
While the first years were essentially about writing good content, showcasing the sector and reaching new audiences, Finnis realised that the network of institutions and contacts, combined with a unique overview across the sector, was a potentially valuable resource.
It was a logical step to move from pure publishing into data aggregation and sharing, building an impressive range of data partners.
For a long time they have supplied the BBC with data, and while the BBC’s ‘Things To Do’ site was still live – it shut a year ago – there were often BBC-paid staff based at Culture24 collecting content.
“We went from publishing into data aggregation and sharing, then we started to realise that in our contact with museums and galleries, people were really struggling to understand how digital was changing their practice.”
In around 2010 it was time to change again, into what Finnis calls ‘knowledge work’.
Let’s Get Real
Many didn’t understand why they were performing certain digital activities: they were constructing websites and starting Facebook and Twitter accounts because everyone had them, without a clear idea of why, who it was for or how to evaluate meaningfully.
“So we started working with anyone who was willing on this action research project that has been going now for about 5 years called Let’s Get Real, which is trying to take a much more honest appraisal of the way digital technology is now affecting how organisations work and also, fundamentally, how the people in them do their jobs, and the struggle they experience.”
Culture24 ran action research projects, produced a number of widely read reports (over 18, 000 downloads), and ran workshops.
“And alongside all of that knowledge work we also started another strand where we picked up and have been running the Museums At Night Festival.”
From a superficial perspective, an organisation concerned with digital publishing, data aggregation and knowledge work isn’t the obvious choice to be running a real-world festival.
However, Finnis points out, closer analysis shows it to be a perfect fit: it was a way to combine the unique skills they had accrued, “…and apply all that in a real-world national campaign where we could try and reach people and make a difference.”
Museums at Night, run by Culture24 for five years, has increased in size annually, and has been successful on a relatively small amount of public funding.
“We’ve started working with contemporary artists and matching them with galleries, and doing extraordinary participatory events where all of our background knowledge comes into play.”
Museums At NIght
While Culture24 is the national coordinator for Museums at night, hands-on with the national marketing, the coordination, and offering guidance and support to all the institutions that take part, actual delivery happens at a local level in every institution in every town.
“I think the reason it’s been so successful is because the delivery is local and individual. The most successful part has been where groups of institutions get together in one town and make a cluster.”
Finnis and her team have done case studies on these clusters, which have been shown to amplify each other’s messages and share audiences, making a much bigger impact together than they could on an individual basis.
Finnis’s enthusiasm for the project is palpable:
“We’ve had loads of great press, and had a BBC2 documentary made, and all kinds of cool stuff like that.”
At present, Culture24 is focusing on developing Museums at Night. The aim is to involve every eligible organisation across the country.
“It’s such a good model. We’re working very hard trying to find sponsorship. We’ve got some great assets, we’ve got great audience reach and we’ve had some really good help. So the next stage for Culture 24 is to grow Museums At Night, and roll it out across the whole country. We’ve got new ideas for all sorts of projects within it.”
One idea being developed is the Museum Town Square, which will be the flagship project within Museums at Night next year.
Another project in its third year is Connect!, where contemporary artists are matched with museums.
(This year’s Connect! artists, clockwise from top left: Pure Evil, Yinka Shonibare MBE, Gilliam Wearing, Luke Jerram, Davy and Kristin McGuire, Alinah Azedah)
Essentially, Connect! is a competition, where the public vote to help six heritage and arts venues, the prize being to work with a ground-breaking contemporary artist and a bursary to support their Museums At Night event.
At the end of October, leading contemporary artists such as Luke Jerrum and Gillian Wearing will be working with the winning galleries and museums to produce unique participatory art as part of the Museums at Night festival, which takes place over Hallowe’en weekend, Friday 30th and Saturday 31st of October.
“We’ve got one more year of Connect!, but we’re working on the Museum Town Square project for when Connect! is finished.
“The concept is based on the principle of a number of market stalls, where the currency is an exchange of ideas.
“You take over a market place at night, and all the stalls are the museum itself with its different departments, but equally importantly, all the community groups. The idea is being shaped by three artists whom I’m working with, and the idea is that the market square itself becomes a piece of art.”
Culture 24 is working on a national level with the British Museum, which is lending objects to local communities, so the project represents a mix of national and local, individual and institutional, historical and contemporary, all representing themselves, and talking about ideas.
That is the future. For the present, Culture24 has expanded the Let’s Get Real work. There have been four rounds, each of nine months, of Let’s Get Real in the UK, with twenty to thirty organisations, each one built on the next; each designed to be transformative to the organisation taking part.
“We had our conference in Brighton on the 23rd September, and are now extending the Let’s Get Real work internationally: we’re running a Let’s Get Real North America with venues in America and Canada, and this winter we’re starting a Let’s Get Real Children and Young People, which is focussing on organisations which want to connect and communicate with young people specifically.”
Additionally, Culture24 has started working on a project with the British Council called Fit For China, where they are exploring helping institutions create digital content fit for audiences in China.
The project for which Culture24 is perhaps most widely known, the VanGoYourself project, which invited the public to “recreate a famous painting with your friends” – the image was then twinned with the original and shared on social media. VanGoYourself was something of a surprise success story for Culture24.
“For four years, we were working closely with Europeana [an internet portal that acts as an interface to millions of books, paintings, films, museum objects and archival records that have been digitised throughout Europe] on two big European projects, around how cultural heritage- as in the digital collections possessed by museums and the objects in a museum’s collections – and tourism meet.”
Culture24 were advising and part of the co-creation workshop on a project exploring pilot ideas for bringing cultural heritage items into a touristic context. Having done research and run tables and policy events, they came up with the idea for Van Go Yourself as an example.
Since they were part of the advisory group, their idea wasn’t meant to be in the running, but, “everybody voted on the ideas that they liked, and although we weren’t meant to be in the running, everybody liked our idea and wanted to build it. And, they found the money and we built it, and ran it, and it just went absolutely bonkers. Last year the BBC breakfast TV picked it up and we had a big rush of interest.”
However, the funding for the VanGoYourself project, which has been running now for eighteen months, with thirty different venues across Europe contributing, and over a thousand re-creations, is exhausted.
“We did a crowd funding campaign which was very difficult and not particularly successful – we certainly learned how NOT to run a crowd funding campaign. All the European projects where VanGoYourself came from have finished now; VanGoYourself has no more funding. We’re just looking after it and maintaining it – and trying to work out what to do with it.
“It’s a brilliant idea. The issue now is to find an application where somebody might want to pay for it and pick it up.
“But people are still doing it – venues are still adding content. It’s not difficult for us to maintain it: it’s a day a week for somebody. It’s a challenge for me to find a business model for it, ” she says.
(Above: BBC Radio 1’s Nick Grimshaw VanGo’s himself)
One further venture for Culture24 is the re-think of its existing publishing offer.
“We’ve learned a lot working on Let’s Get Real, and we want to put that knowledge into our own practice. As well as VanGoYourself we publish two other websites; one is called Culture24.org.uk, and that is basically the original site from 14 years ago. It was redesigned around eight years ago, so the design and the interface is a bit tired. It needs a complete refresh. We’ve optimised it for mobile and so on, and the content’s good, but it needs a re-think.
Show.Me … the future
“We recently relaunched our site for children which we’re working very hard to promote, called Show.Me, showcasing the best of museum and gallery content for kids. That’s going very well.
“So, we’re re-thinking what to do with Culture24.org.uk; we’re working out what to do with VanGoYourself, and we’re working very hard to promote Show Me.”
The re-think of culture24.org.uk might involve a complete re-branding and re-launch:
“That’s what we’re considering at the moment. If anything, we’re probably going to take that down the direction of being more focused on just museum content and trying to specialise it a bit more.
“I’m not sure, yet. My office is covered in bits of paper and Post-It notes…”
Culture24 is a charity but, as Finnis points out, they have to operate as a business, never having had secure, long-term government funding.
“We’re a charity. There’s this endless tension around all arts organisations – moving towards sustainability is, of course, completely impossible, especially if you’re working in the public interest to provide public services.”
As a hybrid organisation operating across digital media and across galleries, museums and the arts, they don’t belong comfortably in any particular category, and have only ever received year-on-year funding.
“We are, as an organisation, and I am, as the CEO, very familiar with having to work to generate a lot of extra income; having to work in an environment of very high risk; not having security going forward; having to have a lot of external partners and operate a really big mixed economy. It has always been like that.”
Commenting on the current economic situation for the arts, she adds: “To be honest with you, the rest of the sector is now getting some of what we have.”
She goes on to point out that while Culture24 has always experienced insecurity, and lack of stability they have, paradoxically, also been successful in delivering projects, and have had a trajectory of growth. It is despite that climate that they have been so successful, and despite that climate they continue to be successful.
“One of the things, for me, that has permeated all the things I’ve done has been this interest in the meeting-places between different disciplines, and particularly the role that creativity and artistic vision plays in wider society and its relationship to education, to cultural heritage, to creative industries and the whole world.”